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Funding manned space exploration is not rocket science

After the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center this week, there will only be one more space shuttle mission left before the era of NASA’s manned space exploration comes to a close. Yes, nearly 50 years to the day that President John F. Kennedy called for a brave new era of space exploration, and 30 years after the launch of the space shuttle program, the U.S. is turning over the future of space exploration to the private sector. By the end of 2011, NASA will no longer own, operate or develop its own spacecraft. In fact, until commercial space exploration takes off, the U.S. will pay as much as $50 million to the Russians each time we fly our astronauts to the International Space Station. So who lost this Sputnik Moment?

The problem is, it’s probably not anyone’s fault. Take a look at the burgeoning U.S. deficit – there’s your culprit. It takes bucks to be Buck Rogers. The all-out privatization of the space exploration program is simply the latest sign that the U.S. government no longer has the budgetary wherewithal to fund “non-core” programs (Beltway speak) — like manned space travel. At a time when tax cuts pile up for the wealthy and billions of dollars are siphoned off to pay for healthcare and other government benefits, there’s just no longer room in the federal budget for space travel. 

Which is not to say that everything is gloom and doom for the U.S. space program. The privatization of the space exploration program continues apace – there’s even talk of a “rent-an-astronaut” program and sub-orbital trips for space tourists. Last week, a few lucky corporate winners split up $269 million in federal government funding last week as part of the U.S. government’s new “commercial crew development program.” By scouting the winners, it’s possible to see who will be responsible for getting our astronauts into outer space over the next few years: SpaceX ($75 million), Sierrra Nevada Corporation ($80 million), Boeing ($92 million) and Blue Origin ($22 million). And, of course, there’s Virgin Galactic (an offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire) setting up shop in the New Mexico desert, with a futuristic Spaceport for suborbital space tourism.

It used to be you bought an airline or an automobile company if you were a billionaire – now you fund a commercial space exploration program. All of these commercial space companies share a common theme – they’re almost always helmed by an unusually wealthy billionaire: SpaceX by Elon Musk, Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson – you get the idea. There’s even a rumor that the Google guys are funding some kind of (private) beta lunar exploration space program.

And that’s precisely what alarms me. Space travel has turned into a Billionaire’s Boys Club rather than an urgent national priority.

It may be too early to be calling for the twilight of U.S. space exploration glory, but it’s very different from what we’re seeing in countries like China and Russia, where funding for the space programs come from the government. This past week was Yuri Gagarin’s 50th anniversary, and it was a big deal in Russia, broadcast all over Moscow’s Channel One. Even during the nadir of Communist rule, when the store shelves were empty, the Soviets invested in their manned space program. You know, Rockets on the Volga, and all that.  So why are the Chinese and Russian governments funding manned space exploration and we’re not?

NASA has never been synonymous with the type of bloat you might find elsewhere in the government. Spending billions of dollars on space exploration was money well-spent. Planting a flag on the moon – that’s priceless. We’re now facing a situation where astronaut morale is at a near all-time low and our astronaut class has been whittled down from a high of 150 just a decade ago (when there were visions of regular orbital trips to the International Space Station) to a class of 60 now. Are we willing to rest the future of U.S. manned space exploration on the whims of a few billionaires – or do we, as a nation, have the Right Stuff to make human spaceflight a national priority once again?


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